The Budget’s Foreign Policy Handcuffs

Hopes that a Democratic administration with an expanded Democratic congressional majority might lead to a more ethical, rational, and progressive foreign policy were challenged with last week’s passage of the 2009 omnibus budget bill, which included many troubling provisions regarding the State Department and related diplomatic functions.

In the House of Representatives, all but two dozen Democrats supported and all but 20 Republicans opposed the bill. It passed the Senate by voice vote, believed to have been mostly divided by strict party lines.

While the Obama administration had little to do with putting the bill together and seemed willing to wait to put its imprint on the budget for the 2010 fiscal year, it was nevertheless disturbing that the new president didn’t challenge the inclusion of segments of the legislation that seemed to be designed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, and other Democratic congressional leaders to undercut his authority to pursue a different Middle East policy than his predecessor.

Most notably, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders refused calls for conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel, Egypt, and other countries in the region on their adherence to internationally recognized human rights standards. In addition, in reaction to the United Nations Human Rights Council raising concerns about human rights abuses by Israel and other U.S. allies in the region, Pelosi’s bill bars the use of any U.S. funds to be appropriated as part of the annual contribution of UN member states to support the Council’s work.

Also problematic is that — while Congressional Democrats formally dropped their longstanding opposition to Palestinian statehood in the 1990s (in contrast to President Barack Obama, who has supported Palestinian statehood since his days as a student activist in the early 1980s) — the Democratic-sponsored appropriations bill contains a series of measures which appear to be designed to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Fueling the Arms Race

Challenging the widespread consensus by arms control specialists and other observers that the Middle East already has too many armaments, Pelosi and the Democrats have clearly determined that, in their view, the region doesn’t have enough armaments and that the United States must continue its role as supplier of most of the region’s weaponry. As teachers, librarians, social workers, health care professionals, and other Americans are losing their jobs due to a lack of public funding, the Democrats’ appropriation bill pours billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer funding into sophisticated weapons for both Israel and neighboring Arab states. And, with his signature, it appears Obama agrees with these distorted priorities.

Pelosi and the Democrats made clear their outright rejection of recent calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to suspend U.S. military aid to Israel in response to the use of U.S. weapons in war crimes during the assault on the Gaza Strip in January, instead siding with the former Bush administration in allocating $2.5 billion of unconditional military aid to the Israeli government this fiscal year.

Rather than being directed toward counterterrorism or other defensive measures, the bill stipulates that funds will be used for the procurement of advanced weapons systems, roughly three-quarters of which will be purchased from American arms manufacturers.

An additional $1.3 billion in foreign military financing is earmarked for the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, $235 million for the autocratic monarchy in Jordan, $58 million for Lebanon, and $12 million for the repressive regime in Tunisia. The only other country specifically targeted for military aid in this legislation is Colombia, which will receive $53 million.

While last year’s appropriations bill blocked Egypt from access to part of its military aid until it had taken clear and measurable steps to “adopt and implement judicial reforms that protect the independence of the judiciary” and “review criminal procedures and train police leadership in modern policing to curb police abuses,” such provisions were removed from this year’s bill, yet another indication of the Democratic majority’s lack of concern for human rights.

Sabotaging a Palestinian Unity Government

As European governments and others, recognizing that some kind of government of national unity between Fatah and the more moderate elements of Hamas is necessary for the peace process to move forward, Pelosi and her colleagues are attempting to sabotage such efforts. This year’s appropriations bill prohibits any support for “any power-sharing government” in Palestine “of which Hamas is a member,” unless Hamas unilaterally agrees to “recognize Israel, renounce violence, disarm, and accept prior agreements, including the Roadmap.”

By contrast, there are no such provisions restricting the billions of dollars of aid to the emerging coalition government in Israel, which includes far right parties that have likewise refused to recognize Palestine, renounce violence, support the disarming of allied settler militias, or accept prior agreements, including the roadmap.

In short, to Pelosi and other Democratic congressional leaders, Palestinians simply do not have equal rights to Israelis in terms of statehood, security, or international obligations. The Democrats are willing to sabotage any Palestinian government that dares include — even as a minority in a broad coalition — any hard-line anti-Israeli party, yet they have no problems whatsoever in pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into supporting an Israeli government dominated by hard-line anti-Palestinian parties.

There’s a word for such double-standards: racism.

Other Anti-Palestinian Provisions

Migration and refugee assistance are other areas where the anti-Palestinian bias of Pelosi and other Democratic leaders becomes apparent. There are dozens of countries in which the United Nations, assisted in part through U.S. aid, is involved in relief operations, including those dealing with Rwandans, Kurds, Congolese, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, and other refugee populations from which terrorist groups operate or have operated in the recent past. However, Pelosi and the Democratic leadership have determined that it’s among Palestinian refugees alone that the State Department is required to work with the UN and host governments “to develop a strategy for identifying individuals known to have engaged in terrorist activities.”

Pelosi’s bill stipulates that not less than $30 million in funds for migration and refugee assistance should be made available for refugee resettlement in Israel. None of the other 192 recognized states in the world are specifically earmarked to receive this kind of funding, which is normally made available on assessment of humanitarian need. In recent years, successive Israeli governments have encouraged immigrants to live in subsidized Jewish-only settlements, illegally constructed on confiscated land in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights, in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice. The inclusion of this funding is widely interpreted as an effort by Pelosi and other Democratic lawmakers to encourage further Israeli colonization in occupied Palestinian and Syrian territory so as to decrease the likelihood of a peace settlement.

Only $75 million in aid is allocated to the West Bank and none of it is allocated to the Palestinian Authority itself. In contrast, annual U.S. economic assistance to Israel (which doesn’t include the billions in military aid) goes directly to the Israeli government and has usually totaled more than 15 times that amount, even though the per-capita income of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is less than one-twentieth that of Israeli Jews.

Pelosi’s bill contains lengthy and detailed conditions and restrictions on programs in the West Bank, with extensive vetting, reporting, and auditing requirements required for no other place in the world. This year’s bill adds requirements that all funds are subjected to the regular notification procedures, also an unprecedented requirement. There are also a number of other stipulations not found for any other nations, such as the provision banning any assistance to the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation.

Despite all the additional administrative costs such restrictions require, the bill caps administrative expenses at $2 million; no such limitations exist involving aid to any other nation.

The Democrats’ goal appears to be to make it all the more difficult for Palestinians — already suffering under U.S.-backed Israeli sieges — to meet even their most basic needs for health care, education, housing, and economic development.

Roadblocks for Palestinian Statehood

Though the United States remains the world’s number one military, economic, and diplomatic supporter of repressive Middle Eastern governments — including absolute monarchies, military juntas, and occupation armies — the appropriations bill includes language insisting that the “governing entity” of Palestine “should enact a constitution assuring the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and respect for human rights for its citizens, and should enact other laws and regulations assuring transparent and accountable governance.” No such language exists in regard to any other nation.

There are also provisions blocking U.S. support for a Palestinian state unless it meets a long list of criteria regarding perceived Israeli security needs. Again, no such conditions exist for any other nation in terms of its right to exist.

One target of Pelosi and other Democratic leaders is the Palestinians’ desire to regain the Arab-populated sections of East Jerusalem, which have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. In addition to its religious significance for both Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims, Jerusalem has long been the most important cultural, commercial, political, and educational center for Palestinians and has the largest Palestinian population of any city in the world. Given the city’s significance to both populations, any sustainable peace agreement would need to recognize Jerusalem as the capital city for both Israel and Palestine.

In an apparent effort to delegitimize any Palestinian claims to their occupied capital, however, Pelosi’s bill prohibits any “meetings between officers and employees of the United States and officials of the Palestinian Authority, or any successor Palestinian governing entity” in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem “for the purpose of conducting official United States Government business with such authority.” Even if the Israelis do agree to end their occupation of Arab East Jerusalem, Pelosi and the Democrats have inserted language that no funds could be used to create any new U.S. government offices in Jerusalem that would interact with the Palestinian Authority or any successor Palestinian government entity.

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues continue to pursue nonproliferation based on ideological litmus tests rather than universal law-based principles. For example, the bill requires that any assistance to Russia be withheld until the Russian government has “terminated implementation of arrangements to provide Iran with technical expertise, training, technology, or equipment necessary to develop a nuclear reactor, related nuclear research facilities or programs, or ballistic missile capability.” However, there are no such restrictions on the United States itself continuing its nuclear cooperation with India, despite India’s maintaining and expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1172, nor are there any objections included regarding ongoing U.S. ballistic missile development with Israel, despite Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal and its ongoing violation of UN Security Council Resolution 487.

The appropriations bill stipulates that the United States will support the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency — which successfully dismantled Iraq’s nuclear program in the early 1990s — “only if the Secretary of State determines (and so reports to the Congress) that Israel is not being denied its right to participate in the activities of that Agency.” This appears to be an effort to prevent one of the means by which the United Nations could conceivably pressure Israel into ending its ongoing violation of Resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the trusteeship of the IAEA. There are no other countries whose potential exclusion from the IAEA would jeopardize U.S. funding.

Moving Forward

It should also be noted that there were a number of positive changes to the FY2009 budget impacting the Middle East. Language that required the State Department to designate the birthplace of U.S. citizens born in Israeli-occupied parts of greater East Jerusalem as “Israel” — thereby effectively recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian territory — was dropped. There was also a new segment in the bill directing the Secretary of State to report on Moroccan suppression of human rights in the occupied Western Sahara.

Most significant is a provision banning nearly all cluster-bomb exports to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, an initiative which had been defeated during the last session of Congress thanks to near-unanimous Republican opposition, as well as negative votes from such leading Democratic senators as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Obama — who, in contrast, voted in favor of the resolution — apparently helped to insure the inclusion of this provision in the bill, which has been applauded by human rights groups.

Meanwhile, a number of additional anti-Palestinian amendments introduced from the floor by Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) were voted down after vigorous lobbying by Americans for Peace Now and other liberal groups.

Nevertheless, it’s disappointing that so many other right-wing provisions involving the Middle East were included in the omnibus spending bill, particularly since this year’s appropriations were put together by a Congress with the largest Democratic majority in decades.

It will be President Obama, and not the Democratic-controlled Congress, who will ultimately determine the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the coming years. Unfortunately, even assuming the best of intentions by a president who came to office in large part due to popular dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. policy in the region, he won’t be able to fundamentally change the direction of that policy if Congress continues to pursue policies supporting militarization, occupation, and repression.

Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy in Focus senior analyst, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.